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Mental Health in Construction: Breaking the Stigma


Posted on May 27th, 2021

close-up of construction worker's face on jobsite.

When you think of construction, “mental health” isn’t usually what comes to mind. Work is already stressful for most—but add in long hours, demanding tasks, and anxieties from the COVID-19 pandemic? It’s a whole different story. Especially in a line of work where tough exteriors and high expectations are recognized as an unspoken part of the job.

Construction has one of the highest suicide rates in America. Which is exactly why talking about mental health is so important.

So what is the state of mental health in construction today? Why does it matter? We’ll explore a few reasons, as well as how construction companies can encourage workers to prioritize their mental wellness.

What is mental health, and why is it so important?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health “includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” It affects our everyday choices, including how we think, feel, act, and relate to others. In 2015, nearly one in five Americans age 18 or older were estimated to have a mental illness.

Good mental health can improve your self-confidence and how you cope with stress. Poor mental health, on the other hand, can make even getting out of bed feel impossible. When diagnosed with a mental illness, you’re also more at risk for physical health problems (like strokes or heart disease).

In a demanding industry like construction, it’s important to maintain your own mental health—and support the health of those around you.

Construction has one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation.

A 2020 study by the CDC found that, in 2017, nearly 38,000 working-aged people in the United States (across all industries) died by suicide. That’s a 40% rate increase in less than two decades.

Construction had the second-highest suicide rate of all occupational groups, at 45.3 workers per 100,000. Those that were particularly affected? Young men and construction managers.

The CDC also states that construction workers are more at risk for alcohol and substance abuse, among other harmful behaviors.

But why?

Sally Spencer-Thomas, lead of the Workplace Task Force within the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, said the construction industry’s culture is a big reason.

“The culture of risk-taking, stoicism and self-reliance in the construction industry certainly makes for courageous and hearty workers,” Spencer-Thomas told the American Society of Safety Professionals. “But it also increases risk for suicide, in that this occupational group is least likely to reach out when there’s a problem.”

Construction is a high-pressure, fast-moving industry.

As mentioned earlier, the construction industry is a tough one for many reasons, including:

  • High-stakes, high-skill work

  • Long hours and demanding jobs

  • Seasonal layoffs and unpredictable delays

  • Travel (separating workers from their families and friends)

  • A tough, “macho” workforce culture

On top of all this, trying to meet project budgets and schedule deadlines puts a lot of pressure on workers to do things perfectly the first time.

Construction jobs are still predominantly made up of young men. That means they may take longer to match the efficiency of a more experienced worker. The extra social pressures (and possible ridicule) can contribute to a negative mental state.

That also means conversations around mental health are scarce—as Steve Fox, CEO of BAM Nuttall, told Construction News.

“I think the fact [that] construction is a male-dominated industry highlights male-related issues. Men don’t talk about this stuff at all,” Fox said. “One of the big things we need to do is to make it safe for people to talk about mental health.”

As workers begin to feel that they can talk about their mental health and areas of stress, they may also become more willing to ask for help on the jobsite. This could lead to a decrease in accidents or jobs done incorrectly the first time.

Prioritize mental health on your jobsites.

How can you encourage your workers and employees to prioritize their mental wellness?

First things first: Start the conversation.

Set aside some time at work to check in with everyone and how they’re doing. In February 2021, the CDC added a section on mental health to COVID-19 checklists for construction employees. This makes it easy to see how your crews are doing on a consistent basis—and reassures them that their health matters.

Toolbox talks are another great way to educate crews on important safety topics. But safety goes beyond the physical risks of a jobsite. In fact, there are toolbox talks on workplace suicide, common unsafe behaviors in construction, and more. By making mental health the subject of your safety meetings, your workplace becomes a safer space to talk about these issues openly.

Above all else, consistency—and developing a positive work environment—is key. The more construction companies normalize talking about mental health, the better they can support and protect their workers. Let crews know that you’re here to support them (and have other resources available) if they need it.

Here are some helpful resources to share:

For more information on mental health, visit the CDC’s site.

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